In 2014, my friend J.B. Adams did something that I admire. He does things I admire all the time, actually, but this was particularly remarkable. One post written every day on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Not only did I get to talk to him about this on the show, he was kind enough to share his last post, which sums it up quite well.
2014, MY YEAR WITH VICTOR, DAY 365, The Final Post
“DEAR VICTOR” – AN OPEN LETTER OF GRATITUDE AND REFLECTION
2014 has been a great year, and you played a big part in making it so.
Before it even stared, in December 2013, I was looking for an idea. I wanted to do something interesting in 2014 – something challenging that would require discipline for the whole twelve months, something that would bring a sense of focus to the year.
It wasn’t until the final days of 2013 that the idea came together. I had been listening to movie soundtracks on Youtube – that’s a website – when I came across the music from Les Misérables. (Yes, somebody took your book and adapted it into a show, and that show became a movie. Anyway…) I had never seen Les Misérables, and didn’t really know anything about it, and as I listened, I thought, “What are they singing about? Who can make any sense of this? I don’t get it.” (That’s no slur on you, sir, it just means that maybe it’s a challenge to adapt your 1500 page book into a piece of popular entertainment.)
After looking into it, I learned that you wrote Les Misérables in the mid-nineteenth century, that it was considered great literature, and it had exactly 365 chapters. “Cool!” I thought. “That’s the same number of days in a year.” Coincidentally, my good friend Valerie Lindgren Smith was wrapping up her “year of gratitude” – her commitment to post a daily message of thanks on Facebook. (By the way, Victor, you would really like her.)
With these ideas, and a trip to the bookstore, “My Year with Victor” was born, with the intention to post a summary of each chapter of your book on Facebook first thing each morning. “The chapters are short,” I told myself. “This won’t take more than 15 minutes a day.”
Well, here we are at the end of the year. And I mean no offense by this, but I can tell you that this project took more time than I expected – on average about an hour a day, between reading the chapter, writing the summary, and preparing an illustration. (Some of your chapters turned out to be quite long.) But reading the story one chapter at a time, interpreting the meaning of each chapter, and then rewriting each chapter for an audience of readers helped me see your messages more clearly.
Ultimately, this daily ritual provided greater rewards than I ever could have imagined; your words transformed the way I see people, the world, and everything, really. This will go down as one of the great experiences of my life, and for this, I thank you.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to say at the end of the year. I could present my readers with a list of the things I learned from my conversation with you. But after starting down this road and creating some early drafts, this turned out to be not such a good idea – you gave me more material than what I could share in a single post.
So to narrow it down, I asked myself: If I could sum up what I learned from you in a single statement, what would that statement be?
I wanted to do right by you. You addressed the human condition in a story that transcends time and place; though written in the 19th century, you wrote is a story for the ages. For me, the best summary of your work is this:
“EVERY HUMAN LIFE HAS MEANING.”
First, this means that one person’s life has meaning.
It would be easy to say that this is obvious – of course your life has meaning to you. But you taught me that you and I are just a part of a larger, ongoing story – the story of the human race over time, sharing planet Earth. Because our world is so vast, and there are so many people here with us, it might be easy for one to say, “In the grand scheme of things, I’m insignificant.” But this is not true.
You taught me that my existence on this planet comes about, as you would say, through my interaction with “the Infinite.” Not just an infinite God, who imbues me with a soul, but also as the result of the infinite number of decisions that were made by my predecessors. You invited me to imagine all the details over the course of time that went into creating my presence here and now – the circumstances that led to my wonderful parents meeting and creating a relationship, the forces that caused my ancestor’s families to migrate from one place to another, the random chances that brought people together or drove them apart. Change one little detail in that infinite past, and – Poof! — I would cease to exist.
In the same way, I see that the decisions I make today will not only impact the rest of my life, but also the lives of the people around me, my children, and future generations. The seemingly simple decisions that people make – about which school to go to, who to date, which job to take, who to marry, how many children to have, whether or not to divorce – all have significant consequences on the future.
What each of us do today, and every day, really matters in the story of humanity.
Once we realize how much power we have over the future with the decisions we make each day, it calls to mind what you called our “duty” – our responsibility to this human story. You asked us to consider: Are we making the world a better place? Or just leaving all of that up to chance?
This brings me to my second point about the statement: the lives of all of my fellow human beings have meaning in equal measure to my own.
Victor, I think this idea is harder for everyone to understand. Basically, you invited us to consider how we see our fellow human beings, and a lot of people don’t like to do this, because then they might have to take a look in the mirror and examine themselves. This makes them uncomfortable.
You asked me to think: When I encounter strangers, do I tend to focus on what I have in common with them? How I might share the same needs, emotions, or life experiences? Are they “friends” to be encouraged and embraced? Or do I tend to focus on what makes me different from them? Perhaps they don’t look like me, dress like me, think like me, read the same books or listen to the same music I like, or believe what I believe. Does that make them something to be hated and feared?
This year, you taught me that humanity will progress toward a state of freedom and equality. When I see my fellow human beings as friends, I will act to protect their rights and freedoms as my equals. When I see my fellow human beings as enemies, I will act to oppress them, so I can assert myself as “superior” – thus slowing down human progress. (Why would I want see myself as equal to someone I judge as sub-human?)
But you taught me that this is a trap. It turns out, trying to keep certain people oppressed is not sustainable. Here in America, we have a Declaration of Independence that says “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” You were there when the French fought numerous revolutions to bring “liberty, equality, and fraternity” to fruition.
Victor, since you’ve been gone, you’d be glad to see how much progress we’ve made as a human community. Human beings now have greater abilities to communicate and understand one another, more than they’ve ever had before.
But if you were here, you would probably also see some other things that would upset you. Particularly in this past year, we saw plenty of examples of both oppression and its consequences – violence, wars, protests, injustice, marches, riots, looting, invasions, and acts of terrorism.
Nevertheless, your work gives me a sense of hope. I know that when I am on the side that pushes toward equality and freedom for all, I am on the right side of history. When I am on the side of fear, hatred, and oppression, I am just prolonging the inevitable. History has shown this to be true.
And so it comes back to duty. Am I fulfilling my role as a member of the human community? Am I making the world a better place?
The time is now, the duty is mine.
And the gratitude I have toward you, Victor, is great. Thanks you for a meaningful year, and thank you for giving clarity to a life on planet Earth.
P.S. And to all the rest of you, wishing you a blessed and meaningful 2015!